It’s the last Megamorphs entry, and Back to Before closes this series-within-a-series with a bang. Pushed to the breaking point by yet another horrifically gruesome battle, Jake succumbs to the temptation presented by Crayak’s minion, the Drode. He agrees to let the Drode rewrite time so that Jake, Cassie, Marco, Rachel, and Tobias never walk through that construction site, never acquire morphing abilities, never meet Elfangor or Ax or learn about Yeerks. Yep, this is the Animorphs series’ alternative timeline “what if?” (TVTropes) episode, as contractually required by International Literary Law (look it up). And it is chilling.
Let’s talk about each Animorph’s experience in this alternative timeline. Back to Before contains almost no morphing in it, obviously, and very little Yeerk-fighting. So what we get instead is a refreshing look at the Animorphs’ relationships to each other and the people and world around them. I feel like more recent books in the series have distanced themselves from these things, focusing more on the grand battle. This is a nice chance—albeit through a reset—to remind us who these characters are.
Jake is no longer the leader of the Animorphs. Actually, he never was, which is important. This book reminds us we’ve seen so much character growth over the course of this series. In this timeline, Jake never had to make any of the tough decisions that have changed him, made him harder and craftier. He’s still just a kid. His innate leadership skills are there, as particularly evidenced towards the end where everything starts to fall apart. But his confidence and clarity have been wiped away along with his fatigue.
Rachel is once more a shopping-obsessed teenage girl, forced to fend off Marco’s overt advances and educate her friend Cassie about fashion. As with Jake, seeing this regression is a bit of a shock. Rachel’s warrior attitude has come to dominate her characterization in recent books; it has been a long time since we thought about her family life, her interests outside of fighting as part of the Animorphs. Yet when Marco draws her back into things when he believes he has spotted his mother, Rachel naturally leaps into action: she wants to do something, take a stand, even if she isn’t sure it’s the right thing.
Cassie is a shy, very passionate girl. Oh, and she loves Jake. And he loves her, in that sweet will-they-or-won’t-they teenage way. Although Applegate has continued to develop their romantic feelings over the series, this book is a more intense reminder of it, and it shows how much fighting the Yeerks has warped the Animorphs’ otherwise adolescent priorities.
Ax provides a lot of comic relief here. He has to escape from the sunken Andalite dome ship on his own. Then, when he starts to integrate into human society, he has a much tougher time of it than when he had the other Animorphs’ help. Mostly, though, what we see here is Ax without a prince to follow. He isn’t all that bad at taking initiative and coming up with his own plans, actually—but there is a loneliness to him, an edge that he doesn’t have in the original timeline. We realize how much he has come to belong with the other Animorphs.
Arguably, though Back to Before shines most brightly when it comes to Marco and Tobias’ stories.
Marco see his mom, Visser One, and all hell breaks loose. She just appears in public in front of him, resulting in a dramatic chase sequence until she disappears again. These “glitches” become more frequent until the end of the book. (The whole excuse of Cassie being “sub-temporally grounded” is a very clunky way to break up this new timeline, but I’m willing to overlook it. Every temporary reset book needs one.) Marco’s sudden desperation to find his mother after spotting her is such a kick to the gut given recent events with Visser One and the way it has altered Marco, both as a son and as a character in general.
Finally, Tobias. Poor, poor Tobias. Is there anyone in the series who gets beat up as much as Tobias? He’s such a woobie (TVTropes). And it’s such a delicious irony that his life is not better now that he is a human instead of a hawk. Instead, he gets a first-hand look at how the Sharing recruits vulnerable youth and turns them into Controllers. Although the Sharing’s procedures have been intimated in the past, this is the first time we really get a glimpse of them from the inside. Applegate draws heavily from real-life fascist recruitment tactics here: an older mentor/role model, targeting dispossessed and otherwise downtrodden youth, and giving them a taste of affection and empowerment. It’s devious and nefarious and, for Tobias, entirely too effective until it’s too late.
Although I can get over the sub-temporal grounding MacGuffin, this book once again reminds us in general how the Animorphs (via Tobias in particular) seem wrapped up in a game of cosmic destiny between Crayak and the Ellimist. I’m always ambivalent about stories like this that start with seemingly-random heroes and then retcon it to reveal that they were destined to be heroes all along. Like … why? Why can’t we have books where the forces of the universe aren’t conspiring to make someone a viewpoint character?
Such philosophical quibbles about literature aside, though, Back to Before is an important instalment in the series at this pivotal point where the fatigue is becoming too much and there seems to be no end in sight. It is a signal for us to take a deep breath. There are fourteen more books to go—that seems like a lot, but things start happening quickly now.